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I don’t wear nail polish, it simply doesn’t appeal to me. And fancy nails don’t go with gardening, which does appeal to me. But every time I go to Sacramento to visit my mom and sister, the first thing they do is invite me to the local nail salon to get a manicure and pedicure. I’m a country girl coming to town and they see some rough edges that need smoothing. I realize they want to give me a treat, so I go along
with the program.

My first impression upon entering the nail salon is the waft of chemically-smelling air, even though the room has a high ceiling. It seems oppressive but my mom says I’ll get used to it. OK. And then we spend nearly an hour being indulged by charming Vietnamese women who give my fingers and toes a good going over. I’m starting to see the value of their service as they pick and scrape at long neglected digits, and the chatty girl talk is fun and relaxing.

But as the preening and coloring is nearly done, I’m itching to get outside. The matron insists I must sit for 20 minutes while my “toes dry”, as the finish coat takes time to set. After 10 minutes I can’t sit there any longer, and thanking the gals for their attention, I jam on my sandals, scratching off the new color on one of my big toes, and head for the door in haste. Outside I breathe in a big gulp of fresh air and watch through the window as my mom and sister finish up.

Feet standing by the shore.

Was I being over-sensitive, or am I a canary in a coal mine? Perhaps the latter.

According to a newly released report by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, 10 out of 12 nail polishes distributed in the area that claimed to be “toxin free” actually contained at least one of three potentially hazardous chemicals. More than 30% of those tested had dangerously high levels.

The chemicals in question: dibutyl pthalate, formaldehyde and toluene.

Toluene is a toxin that may cause birth defects and developmental problems in children of pregnant women who have had extended exposure to the chemical. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) has been linked to birth defects in studies involving lab animals, and formaldehyde is a carcinogen.

Close up on a woman's hand holding sunglasses and wearing a watch.

“The labeling does not always reflect the ingredients,” says scientist Valetti Lang, acting manager of the Pollution Prevention Branch of the Department of Toxic Substances Control for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The California scientists tested mostly nail color or lacquer. They also included some top coat, base coat, thinner, nail art, and a top coat-base coat combination.

Concern over exposure to potentially hazardous substances in nail polish formulations is focused particularly on nail technicians who work in nail salons. Over 100,000 manicurists are employed in approximately 48,000 salons in California. 80% of these workers are Vietnamese women. This is because manicuring is a relatively easy trade for a new immigrant to pick up, and does not require fluency in English.

Although the levels of toxicity in nail polishes may be safe when used as prescribed, the effects of low level toxicity are cumulative and may present a hazard to workers who are constantly exposed to these substances.

The products tested which were found to contain one or more of the suspect chemicals were:

  • Sation 99 base coat
  • Sation 99 top coat
  • Dare to Wear nail lacquer
  • Chelsea 650 Baby’s Breath nail lacquer (fast dry)
  • Poshe fast dry base coat
  • Orly Flagstone Rush nail lacquer
  • Nail art striper brush Magenta Glitter
  • New York Summer nail color
  • Paris Spicy 298 nail lacquer
  • Sation 53 Red Pink nail color

Representatives of nail polish manufacturers offered a different perspective on the study results. The report lacks perspective and balance, according to a statement issued by the Professional Beauty Association’s Nail Manufacturers Council. “Most of the brands involved are not major brands and also not found in every salon,” says spokesman Brad Masterson.

Doug Schoon, scientist and co-chairman of the Nail Manufacturers Council, said no manufacturers should label their products incorrectly but that the advocates are missing the point.

“Instead of saying throw all the chemicals out, we should be teaching people how to use them in a safe fashion,” he said. “Nail polish has been used safely for decades.”

Safe Nail Polish Practices

Individuals can minimize the hazards associated with nail polish formulations by adopting these safe nail polish practices.

  1. Apply nail polish and removers in a ventilated space. If the weather is nice, go out on the patio to apply nail polish. If you must be indoors, open a window to get a cross draft, or look for ways to optimize the air flow to disperse any chemicals associated with the nail product.
  2. If you’re pregnant, avoid spending time in nail parlors. It goes without saying that pregnant women should simply avoid any risk of exposure to toxins that may impact the fetus.
  3. Choose light colors for longer lasting results. You can reduce the number of visits to nail salons by choosing lighter colors for your nails. Lighter colors can look good longer since they don’t show chips and imperfections as readily as darker colors
  4. Look for nontoxic brands. When purchasing nail products, consult the list above and look for brands that give you more assurance of being toxin-free.

Whenever there’s conflicting information about the safety of some product or service, with consumer advocates challenging the health implications and industry arguing back about its safety, I recommend just listening to the little voice inside. My little voice says to avoid nail salons – the chemical smell simply does not seem healthy. I trust my intuition more than product safety reports.